Why Chelsea Manning is an American Hero for Both the Humanist and Trans* Communities

Lucas McCahill, lead organizer for the LGBTQ Humanist Council of Baltimore, advocates for gender equality in the U.S. military and highlights Private Chelsea Manning’s heroism.

In the news lately people are going crazy over Private Manning coming out as Trans* and changing from Bradley to Chelsea and asking to be referred to as female and as Chelsea Manning. She has also asked to be allowed to start Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT); this treatment would medically change Manning’s body to look more like what we know as “female.”

Never before has there been a conversation about the truth of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) fight. Contrary to what the media has said, DADT is not gone. Despite the recommendations of the American Psychological Association and many other well-trusted organizations of science professions and research, our federal government does not protect our military people on the basis of gender-identity. Currently, people who are born in one body and do not mentally identify with what we know as our “assigned sex” (the body that we are born in) must hide this part of who they are while their cisgender co-workers can be themselves without issue.

Additionally, we are still fighting what seems to be the age-old fight of protections for all women in the military and protecting them from being assaulted by their male counterparts. In civilian life if a woman is raped she has rights; the legal system may not deal with her case appropriately, but she still has rights. We as a country have been fighting this fight for longer than the 27 years of my life. Still today in the US military we are fighting for women to be treated as equal, contributing, and hard-working human beings in our military. Even if she outranks one of her male counterparts he can still get away with raping her or assaulting her in some other way. This is not how it should be, but even if she does speak up she can still keep her position as she so chooses.

This is not true for those who are Trans* in our military. Yes, DADT is still in place for many of those in our military who are Trans*. As a result of this they must stall their transition to their identified gender presentation or they must leave the military entirely in order to live in what peace they can find. If they come out they will dishonorably discharged and all of their dedicated work to keep our country free is discredited. This is the same as what used to happen to gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in our military until recently.

It is the military, after all, and these people do fight very violent wars, so I am not asking for our military to pamper it’s people. But all people who serve in our military branches should still be respected no matter who they are, what they believe, how they identify, or how they look. After all we are all human beings working together in the world and that is what matters. This is basic common sense that is sadly not common enough and it is a part of our constitutional pursuit of happiness. By not protecting our military on the basis of gender-identity our government is stomping on their pursuit of happiness. By forcing somebody to live in a body that can feel like an unlockable cage we are torturing them. This is what not protecting our military members on the basis of gender-identity does.

Jennifer F. Boylan, professor of English at Colby College in Main and a member of the Board of Directors at GLAAD, talks about how she sees Chelsea Manning in a picture that Private Manning gave to her attorney, David Coombs in Psychology Today. Jennifer says:

When I look at those eyes, I see a woman who knows she is trapped in a situation that she did not choose, and for whom a solution seems impossible. Her problem, at least at the moment she took that photo, is not what she has done. Her problem is who she is, or wants to be.” She goes onto say that, “Like a lot of Americans, I have unsettled feelings about Manning. I was opposed to the war from the beginning, but there’s something about Julian Assange and Wikileaks that     leaves me uneasy as well. I do believe that Manning broke the law; at the same time, I think lives may have been saved as a result of Manning’s actions. The whole case, like our recent history itself, is a series of contradictions, leaving me uncertain about what I believe. Still, I keep returning to that photo of Manning in her car. I’m used to the other photos of the soldier, the awkward-looking private in the buzz-cut and beret. That person has always looked twitchy and uncomfortable to me, even before the arrest. He looks like a man who does not quite know who he is. I don’t get that sense from the photo of Manning en femme. Her eyes are sorrowful, her lips tight with sadness, but to me she still seems like a person at peace. She looks sane.

Over all in our American public, military and civilian Trans* people and gender nonconforming people are misunderstood and just not understood at all. As a country we still see gender as what we can see and touch when there are groups like the American Psychiatric Association that clearly define what gender-identity is and what Trans* means and how it is best to approach treatment for Gender-Identity Disorder. In addition the IRS came out in November 2011 and declared that transition related medical costs like Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) are now tax exempt.

On the civilian side of life we are sailing upwards but still our military lags behind. We have seen ex-military men and women coming out in the last few months and telling their stories about being closeted. From this we have learned that often times people join the military (Trans male to female especially) to feel more “manly” thinking that they simply need to “toughen up” when the reality is that that they are actually a woman in a man’s body.

Please pause for a moment and think about how horrific it would feel to be trapped in the wrong body. Women, how would you feel if you were born with a penis? Men, how would you feel if you were born with a vagina and a menstrual cycle every month for a week? For many people in our U.S. military this is a reality. By not letting them come out and transition safely we are violating their pursuit of happiness and basically saying “no thank you” for putting their lives on the line for us each and every day of their often very young lives. Chelsea is 23 years old—that is very young! Most of us are just graduating from college at that age and starting life. Instead, she has been given 35 years in jail which is bad enough after the torture she’s been through. Being kept in a very small cage with nothing to cover her and being forced to sleep with no clothes on while military security stands by that confining cage. Who knows what was done to her while she tried desperately to sleep—there have been reports that she often went weeks without any sleep. All of this happened while she went through a whole other kind of torture for now, 23 years of being in the wrong body, and being called the wrong name, and being called “he” instead of “she.”

Under the currently law she did break the law by sharing private government knowledge with Wikileaks about what she observed while she was over in the Middle East. But there has been no proof that by leaking this information she risked our lives. By leaking this information we know about critical events in our countries actions while over in the Middle East. Manning leaked the video that we now know as the “Granai airstrike,” showing 86-147 Afghan civilians being killed by our people. Thanks to Manning we also know about many other war crimes: the Baghdad Airstrike, the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, and Cablegate. Cablegate is 251,287 State Department cables dated December 1966 to February 2010 and written by 271 American embassies and consultants in 180 countries that were shared with Assad by our government. Information that we should have known and that we now know thanks to Private Manning looking into her heart and into her mind and wanting to help our American public by helping to inform of us of what our officials are doing with our tax dollars.

To me, Chelsea Manning is an American hero. Never before have we had such an in-depth discussion about government policies and what our government is actually doing as opposed to what they tell us, both on foreign policies and on the policies of our military on the topic of gender.

How somebody looks or identifies does not define their intellect; their actions and their education are what dictate this part of who a person is and who they will be. For too long our government has let its lack of understanding get in the way of treating our citizens equally. We are moving forward on the civilian level, so why not on a military level as well?

As humanists I want to first urge you to educate yourselves on who Trans* people are. Educate yourselves on what it means to live as a Trans* person. When you do this you will see that they are just like you.

Next, I want to ask that Private Chelsea Manning be honored for her strength. Her dog tags have been checked, and reports say that she is a humanist. She is one of us! I don’t know what kind of award we could give as she is in jail, and I highly doubt that she will be let out just to come to a conference to receive our award if we decide to give her one. But I believe that the receiving of recognition should not rely on if the awardee can come to the event to receive it. An award should be about the reason for why the individual deserves the award.

I know that before Manning did what she did many people in my generation trusted the government and didn’t question it. Thanks to her, and those like her, we now stand proudly and question our government at every level. War used to be the go-to decision that the public agreed with. Now we know from the coverage of the pending attack on Syria that this has massively changed and that according to our recent poll that 78% of people are questioning are against attacks. That is a great change.

Private Chelsea Manning has started what could be called a revolution just by trying to inform our American public. I am excited because I think that we will see gender equality for the very first time in our US military, possiblyin the next few years. When people band together and press for change, change happens. When we educate our public, change happens. I know that I will be pressing and I hope that you will use your humanism and over all the kindness that I know that you all have to further recognition of the worth of all human beings, Trans and cisgendered.We can make America what it was meant to be–a country that bases its policies on facts, instead of hate bread by a willful lack of education.

So, even though I know that she may never read this, I want to say, thank you, Chelsea Manning for forcing change in our country. I hope that your intentions are upheld and respected and that the fear of gaining knowledge will not be allowed to overtake the good that you have done.

Lucas McCahill is the lead organizer of the Baltimore Chapter of the LGBTQ Humanist Council. McCahill is gender non-conforming and has been working on LGBTQ civil rights issues for the last five years. Lucas has been an out atheist since they were 25 years old and found the humanist community last January. While much of the LGBTQ community ignores the short comings in society when it comes to Trans rights, Lucas speaks out and refuses to be silenced in the face of fear and hatred.